From South Africa With Love: My SA Specialist Experience Part 1
Day One: Arrival and Settling In
When the South African Airways Airbus A330-200 touched down at the OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg at 4:57 am local time, I knew we were in for some fun, but how much of it was what I didn't know. The date was 19 November, 2018 and we had just begun a journey into what would turn out to be the most adventurous, most daring, and most exciting 8 days of my life.
Two weeks earlier, South African Tourism had 'selected' some SA Specialist Program Graduates consisting of Tour Operators, Travel Agents, and Travel Media from West Africa including 18 from Nigeria and 8 from Ghana, for the 2018 SA Specialist Experience in South Africa. SA Specialist Program is an interactive self-paced online program designed by South African Tourism to promote various tourist attractions in South Africa. The SA Specialist Experience equips travel professionals with firsthand experience to better sell South Africa as a tourist destination.
Led by Mohammed Tanko Kwajaffa, the Trade Relations Manager of South African Tourism for West Africa, we landed in Johannesburg from Lagos before our counterparts from Ghana who were to land an hour later.
Oh, the OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg is a masterpiece and is qualified to be in the same league with the likes of London Heathrow and Dubai International. It is the largest and the busiest airport in Africa, processing 25 million passengers a year. Succinctly put, OR Tambo Airport is a befitting gateway to South Africa. If you're travelling to South Africa, whether for business or pleasure, this is where your experience begins.
After seamlessly going through immigration protocols and reclaiming our luggage, we were warmly received by Sonto Mbonambi from Syavaya Tours, she would be our DMC host for the next 8 days. Soon our counterparts from Ghana arrived from Accra and it was time for some catching up and pre-tour networking. The iconic giant OR Tambo statue at the airport's arrival hall provided an irresistible background for some memorable photos. So, we took a few pictures (a lot actually), exchanged pleasantries, familiarized with one another, and hit the road. Our South African adventure had just begun.
Leaving the airport: We were in two good hands - Sonto and Mohammed.
Our first stop was The Maslow Hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg where we were treated to a well-curated buffet breakfast. Didier Greatsoul Bayeye, Sun International's Marketing Executive for West Africa, was on ground to personalize our Maslow experience.
The meals were very tasty and sumptuous in a very clean and visually appealing environment. Owned by Sun International and located in Sandton’s financial district, The Maslow is Sandton’s premium and deluxe business hotel offering 4-star accommodation and services.
After cooling off at The Maslow, we hit the road again and headed straight to Mount Grace County Hotel & Spa, Magaliesburg in the Gauteng Province, about an hour and 30 mins drive from Johannesburg. The Mount Grace Hotel, an Autograph Collection by Marriott, would be our home for the next three days.
After settling in at Mount Grace, we had the luxury of indulging in jet lag spa treatments, it was a first for many of us including me. How I felt during the 'intensive' one-hour massaging session is a different story for another day, hahahaha. Anyway, after the spa treatments, came lunch, then dinner, and the first day was officially over. Day Two: The Caves and "The Valley of Darkness"
The second day of the 2018 SA Specialist Experience got off to an adventurous start with a visit to The Cradle of Humankind located in Maropeng in the Gauteng Province.
What a Leap! Yes, Bicycles are not allowed beyond this point, but a leap is allowed!
The Cradle of Humankind is a paleoanthropological site declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. The site occupies 53,000 hectares of land and contains over 200 caves including the Sterkfontein Caves which we explored.
After carefully listening to safety tips and instructions, we put on our protective helmets and off we went with our tour guide. The tour began with a fascinating and thought-provoking walk through the Scientific Exhibition Centre with pictorial and video displays of cave formations, geology, early life forms, mammals and hominid fossils.
The Intellectual Walk: Taking a bold walk to Sterkfontein Caves while engaging with Lindiwe, the Tour Guide
Before heading underground to explore the caves, Lindiwe, our Tour Guide introduced us to the popular but controversial theory of human evolution. She talked about Homo Naledi, 'Mrs Ples' and 'Little Foot' and how scientists discovered many hominid and other animal fossils dating back more than 4 million years to the 'birth' of humanity. Owned by the University of the Witwatersrand, the Sterkfontein Caves are said to have produced more than a third of early hominid fossils ever found before 2010.
Our tour of the Sterkfontein Caves started off above the ground, but soon took us deep into the caves, negotiating through dark and tight spots and pathways. There were too many (irregular) steps to climb, 230 of them from the entrance to the deepest part of the cave and another 130 steps up to the exit.
Although the steps and walkways were lit, our Tour Guide's torchlight proved to be very useful. At certain spots, we had to squat as low as possible and literally crawled to negotiate the dark paths. The sheer size and depth of the Sterkfontein Caves is intimidating, to say the least.
Deeper and deeper, we painstakingly maneuvered through the rocky narrow paths until we got to the Milner Hall, one of the chambers in the caves. Don't get it twisted, this is not the kind of hall you know, it's just one of the only two roomy parts of the Caves. The Millner hall chamber is the deepest accessible part of the cave and has a lake; the lake is as clear as it gets and no one seems to know how deep it is.
Millner Hall: The deepest part of the caves
Record has it that in 1984, diver Pieter Verhulsel went diving in the Sterkfontein Caves in an attempt to discover the depth of the lake, but he died in the process. As a result of this tragic incident, diving is no longer permitted in the caves and the depth of the lake remains unknown.
Having touched the deepest part of the cave, we began our ascent to the top via a different, but equally tight and rocky route. And finally, we saw natural light again after an hour of darkness in the caves. Yes, we made it...to the top!
And finally, we made it...to the top!
Exploring the Sterkfontein Caves was a milestone for me. I had heard people tell their captivating stories of cave explorations, but I never got to explore one, even the one next to my Village. But now I have, and can even give a few tips about cave expedition. To successfully and safely explore the Sterkfontein Caves (and other caves), you need more than a pair of comfortable shoes, you need guts and you need courage.
At this point, it's probably appropriate to say that cave adventures are not advisable if you are claustrophobic and/or suffer from acute asthma or chest problems. After 'conquering' the Sterkfontein Caves, we drove to the Maropeng Museum, still in the Cradle of Humankind, for some more adventure.
The Maropeng Museum, also known as the Maropeng Visitor Centre, is a world-class exhibition site, focusing on the development of humans over the past few million years. Although the exhibitions here are based on the hominid fossil discoveries at the Sterkfontein Caves, the Maropeng Museum offers a lot more to educate not only those interested in archaeology, but also those interested in arts, nature and human demography. Beyond archaeology and evolution, the architecture here is simply incredible, it's civil engineering at its best. In fact, the museum building is a tourist attraction on its own.
At the Maropeng Museum, we made a journey through time, starting with the formation of the planet and moving all the way through the evolutionary processes that culminated in the world as we know it today.
We played a mind game that tested the power of our intellects, it involved going through an irregularly convoluted metal stand with a metal loop without allowing the loop touch the convoluted metal. It needed absolute concentration, but sadly, none of us passed the test. We then went through the vortex that made our hearts spin. What followed was mind-blowing.
The literacy level of the world as seen at the Maropeng Museum: Can you see your country?
Perhaps, the most daring part of the museum tour was when we took a boat ride through the four ‘Elements’ of Fire, Water (and Ice), Earth, and Air. This adventure took us on a boat ride via a rough, narrow, convoluted, and dark underground waterway. As our boat made a series of irregular movements down the tunnel in stark darkness, we saw and physically experienced the four elements of fire, water, earth, and air.
At this point, the four of us on the boat unconsciously began to recite the popular Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd). Yes, it was a journey through the valley of darkness to a place of uncertainty, a place of unknown. We literally and metaphorically saw fire. Oh no, this is not that kind of adventure you do and take photos, we couldn't even see our faces. Although we had been told about this adventure earlier, we never saw it coming, not in this dimension.
Forget about the narratives of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, Sterkfontein Caves and the Maropeng Museum are two of the places you must visit on your trip to the Gauteng Province. Beyond satisfying your curiosity, a visit to these sites will deepen your understanding of nature and primitive humanity as well as help you appreciate modern technology. The Maropeng Museum is not just for the inquisitive and archaeology buffs. As a tourist destination it will educate at the very least, and possibly change the way you think of yourself and the world around you.
After the adventures, it was time to give attention to the grumbling stomach, and so we drove to the Maropeng Hotel on the premises of the Cradle of Humankind where we had sumptuous lunch. As we savored our meals, we enjoyed scenic views of Witwatersberg and Magaliesberg ranges from the restaurant. Having explored enough for one day, we drove back to Mount Grace to catch some rest.
We wrapped up the day with a satisfying dinner at the Askari Game Lodge & Spa located on the Plumari Private Reserve in Magaliesberg, set within a pristine wilderness area of over 5,000 hectares with natural African bushveld and an abundance of flora, fauna, birdlife and wildlife.
The well-curated and professionally plated smoked salmon roulade and the grilled kingklip meal was a great way to end the day. At this point, South African Tourism was already spoiling us 'silly' with exquisite gastronomy. But we weren't complaining, hahahaha! Day Three: Have You Got Some Adrenaline?
Day 3 was an incredibly adventurous day, even more adventurous than the previous day. At about 9 in the morning, we took a scenic drive to the Ama Zwing Zwing Ziplines situated in the picturesque Magaliesburg Mountains in the town of Hartbeespoort. I had heard about ziplining, but didn't know what it entailed and how much fun it was. But by the time our tour bus pulled in, it began to dawn on me that we were in for more fun than we had imagined. The adventure began with a briefing which came in form of instructions, followed by what sounded like a warning, then came anxiety, increased heartbeats, and adrenaline rush. We were divided into groups of 8, each group was led and guided by two professional Zipliners. And by the time the guides began to dress us in what looked like fire-fighting kits and gadgets, it dawned on me that this was going to be more fun than we had imagined.
At this time, I had no choice than to set myself on the loose and let my imaginations run wide and wild. Thankfully, I came with all my adrenaline and I banked on it. The Zwing Zwing Ziplining is an exciting eco-adventure involving sliding from platform to platform through the air via suspended steel cables while you get to view the games below. Does that sound too simple? Wait until I tell you this. The ziplining is fun, but it's only for the adrenaline-junkee and the strong-hearted.
With a total length of 1.3 kilometers made up of 7 slides of different lengths, this adventure in the sky runs over 10 towers ranging in height from 2 meters to 14 meters. The first tower and the first cable slide are the shortest and the easiest, but that's where mistakes are made and lessons learned. There are two things you could do while sliding on the ziplines: you could either scream in excitement and fear or keep calm and view the beautiful games below. But trust me, the former is the easier option.
Due to anxiety (yes, I was a little afraid), my first sliding wasn't too good, but by the time I did the longest slide which is 240 meters, I had mastered my fear and became a pro. Of courses, instructions were given before we began our sliding, but once on the Ziplines, our instincts took over. On the highest platform which is 14 meters high, we enjoyed the breathtaking view of the surrounding Magaliesburg Mountains and the Crocodile River before going on the last laps. You are required to apply break towards the end of each line and breaking too early will keep you stranded in the middle of the line. However, the good thing is that, no matter scared you are, you will never fall off as you are safely and securely strapped to the Ziplines.
The Ziplining was as adventurous as it was exhilarating, it was nothing like anything I had done before. The zipline adventure is better experienced than told. If you have adrenaline, the Ziplining should be on your must-do bucket list of adventures in South Africa. It's an amazing experience ideal for team building, corporate activities, and school groups. If you have a phobia for height, this might be a good way to conquer it, and you'll have massive fun while at it. That's what we call using one stone to kill two birds. After the 1.3 kilometer-ziplining and burning some calories, we drove to The Windmill Restaurant, Hartebeespoort where we had sumptuous lunch. The seafood meal was so irresistible that I had to deliberately forget what my doctor told me. The prawn was good, the potato chips were even 'gooder' and the fish was the 'goodest'.
As if the fun wasn't enough already, after lunch we headed to the Harties Water Sports Centre in Hartebeespoort where we did a fun-filled speed boat cruise.
Our speed boat took off from the Harties Harbour and did an adventurous cruise on the waters of Hartebeespoort Dam overshadowed by the Magaliesburg Mountain range. I had had boat cruises a couple of times before, but this one was the most adrenaline-pumping and the most adventurous.
Ironically, I keep saying I'm not a water person, but this was my fourth water adventure in 2018 alone. So I might as well say I'm now a water person. Well, the fun wasn't ending yet, as we boarded our tour bus and headed straight to Lesedi Cultural Village for some authentic African experience.
Located within the Cradle of Humankind, in Gauteng, Lesedi Cultural Village is a tourist village that celebrates the cultural traditions of different peoples of Southern Africa. Initiated in 1995 as a tourist attraction, Lesedi Cultural Village reproduces the original South African traditional homes and customs in 5 traditional sub villages: Xhosa, Zulu, Pedi, Basotho, and Ndebele. The families that reside here on a permanent basis are primarily farmers, looking after cows, chickens, and of course, tourists.
At the Lesedi Cultural Village, we experienced rich and unadulterated African culture first hand in an African ambiance that you probably won’t find elsewhere. A young lady, dressed in traditional South African attired who appeared to be the spokeswoman for the village, spiced up our visit with her flow, energy, and humour.